ALBANY, N.Y. — Late Monday night in downtown Albany, three fans in black went searching for a proper celebration. Their team and their hero had won the long-awaited rematch of women’s basketball’s watershed moment, and so this trio walked the middle of Howard Street, huffing as they climbed the hilly asphalt. Around the corner, beer was waiting.

“Everyone’s jumping on our … bandwagon,” one fan lamented to her friends.

She didn’t mean the Iowa Hawkeyes. She meant women’s hoops.

Long after Iowa unseated defending champion LSU on Monday night, a 94-87 thrill ride that at times felt as though it should have required a seat belt, a crowd lingered in the lower bowl of MVP Arena. The Hawkeyes had secured their second straight Final Four berth, getting some payback after LSU beat them in last year’s title game. And so fans stuck around and cheered as players snipped and then held up their spoils from the night, jagged pieces of nylon net. It sounded like a roar when Caitlin Clark raised hers.

It wasn’t just Iowa City’s finest who filled the postgame throng. Actor Jason Sudeikis was allowed past the yellow ropes and stood on the court taking pictures with guard Kate Martin’s family, for goodness’ sake. He wore a gray hoodie. On the back it read: “Everyone Watches Women’s Sports.”

But while walking on a sleepy street, after sharing their passion with the 12.3 million others who watched the titanic matchup on ESPN, one of the three Iowa fans must have felt alarmed.

“I’m glad more people like women’s basketball, because they used to s— on it,” she said, climbing up the street but looking back to the not-so-distant past.

The OGs of women’s basketball are having to make room in their club as more people, maybe even some reformed haters, are barging in and propping up their feet as if they own the place. They’re here for the good stuff. These newbies are getting hip to the fact that Clark might be an even better passer than she is an unconscious shooter. But when a sport explodes in popularity, as women’s college basketball has over the past year, the gatekeepers can’t always protect their game from the downside of growth.

On Monday, Angel Reese carried a shimmering tiara on the court during the starters’ introductions. She’s a star, so the crown was for show. Had she been more honest with her props, however, Reese might have chosen to wear a target.

Since her team won the 2023 title and she became one of the most discussed athletes in America, Reese has spent a year equally luxuriating in the light of fame and being singed by it. Her “you can’t see me” taunt in the closing moments of the championship game and her “Bayou Barbie” brand might have opened the door for a host of name, image and likeness deals and exponentially more followers on social media — today’s currency. But some of those new eyeballs peering at the women’s game and its stars were also waiting for Reese to fall. (Or watching to see whether she and her teammates would stand during the national anthem.)

The loss to Iowa didn’t make Reese cry. When she fouled out with less than two minutes to play — after scoring 17 points and pulling down 20 rebounds while hampered by an ankle injury — she was steady and stoic as she walked down the sideline. But while sitting atop a dais and listening to teammates Flau’jae Johnson and then Hailey Van Lith come to her defense, Reese sniffled and wiped away tears.

“I’ve been through so much,” Reese said, her voice breaking. “I’ve seen so much. I’ve been attacked so many times, death threats. I’ve been sexualized, I’ve been threatened, I’ve been so many things, and I’ve stood strong every single time. I just try to stand strong for my teammates because I don’t want them to see me down and not be there for them. I just want them to always just know, like, I’m still a human.”

During this somber news conference, occasionally a swell of cheers carried down the hallway. Another Hawkeye was cutting down the net.

The way this game was promoted and anticipated, you might have thought that only Clark would be allowed to touch the scissors. Though Iowa plays fast and delights purists with its buffet of back cuts — just a fun style of basketball — the off-court attention follows Clark and not so much her teammates. Stars drive leagues and television ratings, but it seems the networks have little confidence in the attention span of this sport’s newest followers. So little that they lean on the most easily digestible storylines of one player vs. another and blow up antics that happen in the heat of the moment. Other sports have grown accustomed to that game. Women’s basketball is still adjusting.

Still, this rematch lived up to the hype, as a whole and in social media-sized clips. In the rush of the opening quarter, as Iowa and LSU traded threes and momentum, Clark scored or assisted on 15 of her team’s first 17 points. Her deep shots arrived in stacks, three in the first three minutes of the second half, one shareable snippet after another. Van Lith played the role of unwitting foil when she shrugged hopelessly after Clark raised up in front of her to nail one of her nine three-pointers. Naturally, Van Lith’s dejection trended as a punchline on social media.

But Clark didn’t need to exact revenge by waving her hand over her face, as Reese did to her a year ago in one of the moments that elevated last year’s clash into a sensation. Sudeikis handled that. ESPN cameras caught the actor — he’s a supporter of the WNBA’s New York Liberty, not a women’s hoops bandwagoner — as he hit the “you can’t see me” celebration.

In the final minute, with Iowa’s victory in hand, Clark was more muted. She quieted the crowd behind the Iowa bench that started a “Let’s go, Hawks!” chant before teammate Sydney Affolter shot free throws. Later, near the conclusion of her 41-point, 12-assist and seven-rebound masterpiece, Clark made a heart sign gesture toward the crowd and gave a thumbs-up to someone opposite LSU’s bench.

“We didn’t even guard her last year when we beat them,” LSU Coach Kim Mulkey said of Clark. “She’s just a generational player, and she just makes everybody around her better. That’s what the great ones do.”

A generational player on a very good team took down the champs in a prime-time game with everyone watching, and everyone commenting, for better or worse. That feels like growth.

Late into the evening, the Hawkeyes — the ones you have heard of and the ones you haven’t — triumphantly climbed that ladder to play with scissors and secure their keepsakes. The most loyal fans waited around to watch. One of them would later trek with her friends to a nearby beer hall, wondering if too many people are now watching. Growth sometimes feels scary.

Everyone watches women’s sports. And talks about women’s sports, and posts about women’s sports, and brings their own agenda to the table when it comes to women’s sports. Players who once might have been known only to die-hards instead become targets, characters, even caricatures. These are the growing pains when a game attracts a new legion of fans. They’re still piling onto this speeding bandwagon, and everyone might want to buckle up.



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